One of the fundamental conditions — or is it goals? — of pop stardom is hiding the work. You may see Beyoncé sweat, or note how Taylor Swift’s real-life travails inform her artistic choices, but the music created by the most famous performers in pop rarely refers back to the costs, literal and emotional, of making it.
But what if you want to show the work?
That’s the novel approach of Olivia Rodrigo, a modern and somewhat signature pop star. At the beginning of 2021, she released “Drivers License,” her first single outside the Disney ecosystem she was creatively raised in, and experienced the kind of supernova ascent that’s impossible to anticipate or recreate. Her jolting debut album, “Sour,” released a few months later, showed her to be a spiky, vivid writer and singer, but one who hadn’t quite seen the world.
Two years later, on her poignantly fraught, spiritually and sonically agitated follow-up album “Guts,” Rodrigo has seen too much. “Guts” is an almost real-time reckoning with the maelstrom of new celebrity, the choices it forces upon you and the compromises you make along the way. As on “Sour,” Rodrigo, who is 20 now, toggles between bratty rock gestures and piano-driven melancholy. But regardless of musical mode, her emotional position is consistent throughout these dozen songs about betrayal, regret and self-flagellation.
“I used to think I was smart/But you made me look so naïve,” she howls on the lead single “Vampire” — she’s referring to a toxic ex, but she may as well be singing about the spotlight itself. Or as she puts it on “Making the Bed,” “I got the things I wanted/It’s just not what I imagined.”
Rodrigo is a songwriter of rather astonishing purity — even in her most stylized lyrics, she never wanders far from the unformed gut-kick of a feeling. Sometimes on this album, she triples down. “I loved you truly/Gotta laugh at the stupidity,” she chuckles on “Vampire.” “I look so stupid thinking/Two plus two equals five/and I’m the love of your life,” she croons on “Logical.” “My God, how could I be so stupid,” she sighs on “Love Is Embarrassing.”
Don’t mistake Rodrigo’s weakness for weakness, though. Her self-doubt is a powerful animating force. Throughout this album, she kiln-fires her anxieties into lyrics that cut deep. “Pretty Isn’t Pretty” is about the existential struggle of self-love, particularly under an unrelenting public eye. The impudent “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” captures the essence of outsider awkwardness.
The dreamy — and perhaps “Folklore”-esque — “Lacy” is about being robbed of your illusions: “I despise my rotten mind/and how much it worships you,” Rodrigo sings. From a young star who’s had what appears to be frosty relations with Swift, an idol who was retroactively granted songwriting credit on Rodrigo’s first album, it reads like the bruise from a door slammed shut in her face.
Several other songs are about being on the wrong side of a manipulative relationship. “Logical” and “The Grudge” tackle it via self-serious angst. But Rodrigo has more spark when she’s playfully ambivalent about how, or if, to break free. “Bad Idea Right?,” driven by throbbing bass and drizzled with layered, saccharine chanting, is about how holding on can be more fun than letting go. And “Get Him Back!” is a revenge fantasy — “I wanna meet his mom/Just to tell her her son sucks” — that’s maybe, just maybe, leaning in to double entendre.
The real casualties documented in these songs are the relationships Rodrigo has, or had, with her actual friends. On “Get Him Back!” she imagines their disappointment as she sends a note to that risible ex. On “Love Is Embarrassing” she recounts telling them breathlessly about her new obsession, only to have him let her down immediately thereafter. It’s not that her old life is sitting in judgment of her new one, but rather that she’s lost touch with the anchors that grounded her, and she’s floating into a grotesque unknown. “Getting drunk at a club with my fair-weather friends,” she laments on “Making the Bed.”
All of those songs are, in one way or another, about the perils of being wide-eyed. But Rodrigo is also beginning to harden her shell. On “All-American Bitch,” which opens the album, she details the impossible standard for young women in the public eye: “I’m grateful all the time/I’m sexy and I’m kind/I’m pretty when I cry.”
And she sings with breezy confidence about physical intimacy in a way more akin to hyperstylized dance floor-focused pop stars who use sexuality as performance. On “Logical,” she replays how an ex belittled her: “Said I was too young, I was too soft/Can’t take a joke, can’t get you off.” The moody “Making the Bed,” uses the titular phrase as a recurring motif of restoration, or perhaps of papering over misspent nights with fresh sheets.
Rodrigo writes her own lyrics, and “Guts” is produced by Daniel Nigro, who was also her creative partner on “Sour.” That small circle frees her from the committee-tested gleam of most mainstream pop. Her sudden success means she has not (yet?) needed to subject herself to the homogenization of the Max Martins of the world — she has succeeded by rendering her intimacies on a grand stage. That’s part of why “Guts” leans heavily into rock — pop-punk (“All-American Bitch,” “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”), a little new wave (“Love Is Embarrassing”), theatrical folk (“Lacy”) — which gives her songs thickness and a little bit of rowdiness, too. But some of this album’s most punk moments, as it were, come when Rodrigo unleashes holy hell while Nigro simply plays the piano.
On her debut album, Rodrigo made semi-subtle nods to earlier female pop stars — there can still sometimes be the sense that she is constructing her songs of pre-existing parts, whether from Swift or Alanis Morissette or Avril Lavigne or Veruca Salt. The winks come in the song titles — “Love Is Embarrassing” nods to Sky Ferreira, a parallel-universe meta-pop star of a decade ago who also trafficked in seen-it-all realness. And then there’s the album closer, “Teenage Dream,” which invokes Katy Perry, the archetypically glossy 21st century pop princess.
Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is a naïve cupcake, an exhortation to live, laugh, love. Rodrigo’s is a morbid piano plaint about the falsity beneath all that. The dream is a mirage, and Rodrigo is pulling back the curtain on it: “I fear that they already got all the best parts of me/And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.”
Here, and in the most potent moments on “Guts,” Rodrigo’s music pulses with the verve of someone who’s been buttoned tight beginning to come loose. Unraveling is messy business, but it is also freedom.